When writer Corinne Redfern visited northern Iraq for the first time, she expected desert sand horizons and demolished bomb sites. But she found Erbil, capital of the Kurdistan Region, is much more colorful and refined than she’d expected—especially when the lights go out.
The first time I visited Kurdistan, the autonomous region in northern Iraq, it was by accident. I was working on a project about child marriage, and flights—booked weeks in advance—were meant to take us to the Afghan capital, Kabul. With a level of organization equal to that of an eight-year-old, I’d stuffed three scarves in my rucksack and downloaded six books with ‘Afghanistan’ in the title, preparing myself, I figured, for pretty much anything.
Then the security situation worsened, and the whole thing fell through. “Great news,” read the email I received the next day. “We’re sending you to Iraq instead!” Damn, I thought. I’m going to have to give my Kindle a complete overhaul.
If I knew little about Afghanistan, I knew even less about northern Iraq. Footage on TV portrayed it as beige—a dehydrated landscape punctuated with bomb sites and burnt oil, as local special forces teamed with Kurdish Peshmerga to fight against ISIS and take back the city of Mosul, as achieved earlier in July 2017.
And while the proximity of war is pervasive—flashes of light against the night sky are just as likely to be fireworks as airstrikes—daily life is humdrum and safe.
Pictures on Instagram showed camps of refugees and IDPS (internally displaced persons); dusty and parched in 45-degree heat. I’d heard about the Yazidis—10,000 of whom had been kidnapped and killed by the Islamist terrorists—who were now living in hillside huts, unable to find out if their families were dead or alive.
Their stories are important, and I am grateful to have the chance to tell them. So I braced myself for a sobering seven days of sobriety, and quietly crossed my fingers that I’d get to eat some falafel, too.
As the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, Erbil is a labyrinthine city of contradictions. Only 40 miles from Mosul, the city has remained largely unscathed during its neighboring towns’ recent conflict.
And while the proximity of war is pervasive—flashes of light against the night sky are just as likely to be fireworks as airstrikes—daily life is humdrum and safe. Thirty-day visas are stamped on arrival without question (or charge), accommodation ranges from $20 to $200 USD a night, and the tourist industry is slowly taking off.
But prop open your eyelids until nightfall, and you’ll really witness the city’s swift shift towards Western modernity.
It’s easy to see why. Winding alleys and souk-like markets juxtapose with dual-lane highways that, when viewed from above (and by ‘above’, I mean Google Maps), give Erbil the look of a hastily sliced onion: circular streets nestled inside one another, tightening their coil as you edge closer and closer to the UNESCO central citadel.
Towering glass buildings corrugate the horizon against low-set sandstone bungalows, and men clad in traditional belted Kurdish costume mingle with boys in tight, stonewashed denim and girls in stratospherically high platform shoes.
Wander through the lively market of Nishtiman bazaar by daylight, and the pavements are crowded—inexplicably-dyed fluorescent pink chickens are thrust in your direction by crowing kids; stalls sell sticky baklavas and glutinous zoolbia, a deep-fried sweet, dripping syrup onto the floor from hot aluminum trays; orange, purple and green ice cream, pre-packed in thin plastic boxes, ready for you to eat on the street. There isn’t a bombsite in, er, sight.
But prop open your eyelids until nightfall, and you’ll really witness the city’s swift shift towards Western modernity. All set for a series of early nights spooning my iPad and using my smartphone torch to find the toilet during an inevitable power cut, I suddenly found myself dragged on bar crawl after bar crawl—only the prevalence of heavily-armed bouncers and taxi bomb-checks betrayed the political unrest figuratively taking place next door.
Groups of high-heeled locals and thirsty expats led me north to the Christian district of Ainkawa, where we downed wine in the lobby of the Classy Hotel before lining up alongside Fiori Hotel’s Moon Roof restaurant for an evening of tuna rolls and tequila shots with a 19th-floor view of the horizon.
“Travelers like it here because it feels like home,” the manager tells me across the bar, shouting over an Ed Sheeran song to make himself heard. “You can pretend you’re back in London or wherever.”
“I know we’re down the road from one of the worst crises in the Middle East, but it doesn’t feel like it at all when you’re in the city.”
Sophie*, NGO worker
But if Moon Roof caters to a European elite, then the Divan’s newly launched Lagoon Bar is an even dressier, Dubai-like affair, all complicated cocktails, illuminated swimming pools and pyrotechnical DJ booths, as waiters cater to a crowd of bandage-dressed guests.
Taking a break to question the life choices that led me to believe Birkenstocks were an appropriate choice of footwear for what’s turned out to be the fanciest place I’ve been to in months, it’s almost with a sigh of relief when I’m led back towards town, where primary-colored plastic chairs are duly scattered across a grassy garden at Teachers, and a pint costs less than $3 USD.
Sure, my food order is lost in the chaos, but a plate of watermelon finds its way to my table as a kind of fruit-shaped consolation prize and I can handle that. After all, a fellow Brit has conspiratorially leaned across a table and whispered that a few back-streets away, a stereotype-validating German bar will sell me pork sausages and bacon—as long as I buy an imported Weissbier for $10.50 USD before asking.
“Very few of my friends have come to Kurdistan on holiday, but I don’t understand why it’s still seen as such a risky place to visit,” says Sophie*, 28, who has lived in Erbil for five and a half years and works for a local NGO.
“Those that do make the trip are always surprised by how Westernized it is,” she says. “I know we’re down the road from one of the worst crises in the Middle East, but it doesn’t feel like it at all when you’re in the city. If anything, it seems like more and more bars and nightclubs are opening every week at the moment.”
Her friend Marcia*, 32, agrees. She’s lived here since 2010, and says life used to be more debauched before ISIS invaded Kurdistan in 2014—back when the city was primarily populated by oil magnates, and business types were taking advantage of the region’s natural resources.
“But even though many people left when it looked like ISIS were going to take Erbil three years ago, things are finally picking up pace again,” explains Marcia. “There’s a new cinema café, the first of its kind in the region, and we organize jazz and karaoke nights there all the time.”
Nevertheless, security is taken seriously, both women emphasize, and while shootings in nightclubs have happened, it’s more likely to be a frustrated football hooligan firing at the ceiling of a sports bar than a militant attack.
And Erbil’s nocturnal novelties aren’t restricted to its city center. Flat-roofed villas in Shaqlawa Way, a sprawling countryside community less than 40 minutes’ drive into the suburbs, host all-night cultural affairs, as artists, poets and politicians come together to celebrate Syria through a rotating potluck of local foods and even-more-local dance moves.
Meanwhile, baby-faced finalists of Kurdistan’s Got Talent take to makeshift stages as a paddling pool of rapidly melting ice cubes and clammy cans of Heineken draw refugees and residents alike. Oh, and yet again, I’m incomparably underdressed.
In fact, it’s only upon attending a pre-Ramadan house party back in Ainkara that I stop questioning my packing choices—although that’s only because I’m too busy staring into the fire pit and having a minor epiphany to notice what anyone else is wearing anyway.
As the flames flicker and a stranger passes me a plastic cup that may or may not contain three types of liqueur and a dash of red wine, I realize that the whole ‘destination counts less than the journey’ theory isn’t really accurate. In Kurdistan’s case, you should prepare yourself for your destination to be way more mundane—much more everyday and relatable—than your preconceptions would allow you to believe.
At least until the sun sets.
* Some names have been changed in this feature.
Corinne Redfern is an award-winning journalist with a decade's experience in women's rights and human interest stories. In the last year, she's filed from four continents, including the Zika outbreak in Brazil. Former features director for Marie Claire, she's written for The Guardian, Telegraph, Sunday Times, Stylist, Grazia and ELLE.